A commissioned essay for Łukasz Bury.
The Forgotten is a different sort of Doctor Who comic to any we’ve discussed before. For one thing, it’s American - so American, in fact, that it didn’t even get a UK release. This was a peculiarity of IDW’s deal to acquire the license: because Panini has the UK license already, none of IDW’s Doctor Who comics could be distributed in the UK (which is why their Star Trek/Doctor Who crossover led with Star Trek - because that made it technically a Star Trek comic that could thus get UK distribution. No, really, the licensing rules are that dumb).
IDW, upon acquiring the license, commenced with a two-pronged approach. First was a six issue run of Tenth Doctor/Martha Jones comics by Gary Russell, with art by Nick Roche, which was published alongside reprints of 70s/80s Doctor Who Magazine material starting with Doctor Who and the Iron Legion, all with quite slick colouring. (These books are presumably out of print or on their way out of print now that IDW has lost the license, and I actually highly recommend them if you can track them down. Voyager has never looked so good.) The initial Ten/Martha series was followed by Doctor Who: The Forgotten, intended to be by Tony Lee and Pia Guerra, the latter fresh off the esteemed Y: The Last Man series with Brian K. Vaughan, and the former a writer with some Doctor Who pedigree, having written a few Tenth Doctor strips for Doctor Who Magazine (which we’ll speak more of on Wednesday). Technically this is a bit old - it’s properly set right after Journey’s End. But I like doing comics stuff at the end of a Doctor - it’s become quasi-traditional. So.
The major hook for The Forgotten was that it was the first “all the Doctors ever” story of the new series. That this would be at all novel already feels like an odd historical moment - even if we’ve not had a televised The Thirteen Doctors due to some actors being inconsiderately dead, we get compilations and sets of the entire line of Doctors fairly regularly at this point. And given that this was pointedly not “all the Doctors meet” but rather a story about the Tenth Doctor regaining his memories by exploring a museum of his past selves. Still, this was by far the most substantive crossover between the new series and the classic series that existed to date - especially given that the first issue predated The Next Doctor, and thus predated our first on-screen montage of the classic series.
On the one hand, then, this is a fairly slick production. Tony Lee knows his stuff pretty well, and has researched the rest. There are bits where his characterizations are a bit inept - his Hartnell never feels right, and his Romana is miles off base - but it’s not as though plenty of longstanding Doctor Who writers haven’t fluffed characterizations in their day. For every one he’s off on, there’s another he does particularly well on. His Troughton isn’t great, but for a Doctor who is notoriously difficult to capture off-screen, it’s solid, and his Davison is spot-on. Little decisions like having McCoy’s Doctor make a veiled address to Tennant’s Doctor across the time stream suggest a writer who gets the history of the show.
This isn’t exactly extraordinary, mind you; loads of writers know their Doctor Who. But there’s a degree of “trying to get it right” involved here that stands out. There is also, mind you, a few moments of serious unfortunateness. Guerra is a fantastic artist, but personal problems prevented her from being able to do the third and fourth issues, and for reasons unexplained IDW declined to use her art for the sixth issue despite it apparently being submitted to them by the agreed upon deadline. In amidst all this artist swapping (which did no wonders for the art) came a breathtakingly unfortunate moment where the colorist on the third issue was apparently unaware that Martha is not white.
But for all that the comic is well put together, there is something oddly hollow about it. It is not, as I said, The Ten Doctors. Rather, this is a story in which a semi-amnesiac Tenth Doctor wanders around a mysterious museum being attacked by monsters and reminiscing about his past selves, where at the end it turns out that this has all been caused by an alien parasite. So effectively The Eight Doctors mashed up with Amy’s Choice, which is more creative than it sounds given that Amy’s Choice hadn’t actually aired yet, though still not exactly a concept that lights up the world. It is, ultimately, a concept that exists only to pile on the continuity.
The Forgotten is, in other words, ultimately just a hall of mirrors: an endless procession of bits of Doctor Who continuity presented out of context, with no goal other than piling them on. It is a comic of pure fanservice - an attempt to put IDW on the Doctor Who map by giving a group of people what they want. But, interestingly, no more than that. The Forgotten piles up the continuity references without ever actually building anything out of them. They exist for their own purpose, culminating in nothing save for an ultimately self-consciously empty scene with Susan, or, rather, the TARDIS impersonating Susan.
It is of course worth asking what else anyone expected from a ten Doctor story. Even aside from the problem of aging and death, ten main characters is an awful lot for a self-contained story, and that’s before you add in companions. Finding an adventure in which everyone would have something to do is an outright logistical nightmare. Somewhere between 1983 and the present day the history of Doctor Who became too large to do in a single all-encompassing story. (Indeed, it was barely possible in 1983 - The Five Doctors is, let’s face it, a bit of a mess) In many ways The Forgotten does it as well as it can be done - by getting rid of everything else except the excuse for piling on Doctors and continuity references, it at least can get through all the bases in just six issues of comic book.
So what we have is ultimately a fairly empty exercise in continuity. What, if anything, do we make of this? Certainly it’s an interesting move on IDW’s part - between this and their high quality classic comic reprints they quickly established themselves as, along with Big Finish, the company that’s invested in the history of the series. Unlike Big Finish, of course, they also have the new series license, which puts them in a position to do something like this that tries to encompass the whole history of the show.
But that history is simply too big, and The Forgotten is most interesting in how it demonstrates that. There is no such thing as a story that encompasses everything that Doctor Who is at this point. The Forgotten is in many ways the ideal title for this attempt, not for the superficial reason of it being a story about the Doctor trying to remember his past, but because a story attempting to do this will necessarily leave much out. A story about the entire chronology of Doctor Who will be full of holes and forgotten things. (Most notably and obviously, in hindsight, John Hurt and the Time War, which The Forgotten ascribes to McGann’s Doctor, and does reasonably well with.)
In other words, the fact that the continuity ends up drowning out the actual story is altogether fitting here. It’s what something like The Forgotten was always, almost inevitably, going to be. Here is all the iconography a long-standing fan of the series could ever hope for: ten Doctors, Susan, Ian, Barbara, Jamie, Zoe, Jo, the Brigadier, Mike Yates, Sergeant Benton, Romana, Tegan, Turlough, Peri, Ace (with separate Nitro-Nine and baseball bat), another of Chantho’s species, Rose, Autons, Judoon, spiders from Metebelis Three, Robots (of death and of clockwork), a Chameleon Arch, a Valeyard reference, a Key to Time reference, and cameos from Harry Sullivan, Leela, Mel, Steven Taylor, Kamelion, Nyssa, Adric, and Sarah Jane. All that’s missing, ultimately, is the heart and soul of the series past 2005: actual plot and character and emotional content.
So we reveal the iconography of the series as what we always suspected it was: mere iconography, devoid of substance on its own merits. Doctor Who isn’t some vast and impressive story, but rather a thing that happened in history. In hindsight, The Forgotten is essentially an extended version of that extensive trailer for Day of the Doctor. But its extension adds nothing that the melange of images in that trailer didn’t already bring, save perhaps doing it a few years earlier. Not for the first time in Doctor Who’s history, giving the people what they want only exposes how fundamentally vapid their desire was in the first place.
On top of that, the frustration involved in this series seems to have led Guerra to an extended hiatus from comics work that she hasn’t broken yet. Which, actually tips the series into downright infuriating.